Monday, May 25, 2020

Crime Fiction and Love: The Caitlin Strong Series from Jon Land (and More) [July release]

Crime fiction + Love: It shouldn't be an unexpected pairing. In some cases the masculine or police environment might call for using the term "loyalty" instead, but thumbing through favorite modern mysteries, often a powerful affection between characters acts to tighten the grip of a desperate choice for the investigator.

Look at some of the very popular series in print today: Louise Penny's Armand Gamache series, where Gamache puts himself at risk time and again for the sake of the people on his team, and they respond by maturing and developing deeper courage. Gamache's love for his wife is also front and center in the series, as well as the complicated relationship he has with his eventual son-in-law.

Julia Spencer-Fleming's police procedurals, set in upstate New York, circle around how alcohol and drug abuse and posttraumatic stress disorder affect Claire and Russ as they struggle to prevent and solve murders; Lee Child's Jack Reacher engages in local conflicts for the sake of individuals he's drawn to (and the heartbreak of the series lies in how often he loses contact with those people by the end of an investigation); Tim Hallinan's remarkable Bangkok books, the Poke Rafferty mysteries, focus on what Poke will do to protect and preserve his family and friends; and Julia Keller's West Virginia crime fiction confronting the scourge of opioid addiction does it "up close and personal" through family dynamics.

Jon Land writes several series, and my favorite, hands down, is his Caitlin Strong series. There's a whiff of paranormal to it, because the outrageously loyal and physically strong Guillermo Paz, a unique sidekick to investigators Caitlin Strong and Cort Wesley Masters, often feels driven by a sixth sense that lets him know when "his Texas Ranger," Caitlin, needs his protection. And Cort Wesley sorts through his quandaries with a rootbeer-drinking ghost. Beyond that, however, the books engage the classic motivations for Big Crime (everything in Texas is big, right?) and in a unique historical strand, they retell escapades from the previous generations of Caitlin's family who've also been Texas Rangers.

STRONG FROM THE HEART sends Caitlin hunting the roots of a Big Pharma cabal that's accidentally poisoned an entire Texas town. She needs to get to the criminals as fast as possible, because it's becoming clear that they are the same ones responsible for Cort Wesley's son -- a boy she has mothered for a decade -- making a nearly fatal experiment with snorting an opioid. Cort Wesley, not being an official law enforcement officer, is likely to face serious charges himself if he takes vigilante action against the cabal or its Texas-based leader. And just incidentally, the criminals here are psychopathic enough to re-target Caitlin's family in order to hurt her more.

Deepening the intensity of Caitlin Strong's pursuit is her even more personal stake this time: She's been taking Vicodin to deal with massive cranial trauma she received (see Strong as Steel), and both the targeted youth and her federal-level colleague "Jones" have hinted that she may herself have become an addict.

This book's title fits with another ongoing conflict of love and values in the book: Caitlin's struggle to define her position in terms of a recently discovered half-sister, Nola, who's far more violent (without regrets) than Caitlin herself:
"Let me handle this, Cort Wesley," Caitlin said, when she saw Nola Delgado drinking a Corona in one of the parking lot's few shady spots.

"I was thinking we double-team her."

"Better I do this alone."


"Because we share the same blood."

"But not the same heart, Ranger. Yours is as big and strong as your name. Hers most likely resembles a spoiled peach pit."
Later in the same scene, as Nola tries to goad Caitlin:
Caitlin didn't bristle at being addressed that way today. Maybe she was getting used to the truth. Maybe that was part of what Cort Wesley was getting at, being strong from the heart.
Reading Land's Caitlin Strong series requires relaxing with his very short chapters, thriller style, and having a few loose ends left behind (if Caitlin gets rid of her Vicodin, how's she going to handle the cranial pain, especially after she re-injures her head in another explosion?). But it's prime escape fiction, follows enough of the genre conventions to be satisfying, and -- yes, it's packed with how people act when motivated by love and loyalty.

No need to read the others in the series first -- they are not very dependent on sequence, so they make ideal titles to keep on the shelf for entertaining re-reading.

At the moment, the publication date for STRONG FROM THE HEART is July 28, from Forge Books. We don't often post this far in advance about a book, but this is an especially good year to pre-order, whether from a local bookstore or online.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.   


You know how love makes your heart grow stronger, but also more vulnerable? Right, you've got it. Well, here's a personal story: A few years ago, Jon Land placed "Kingdom Books" into one of his other series, the one he co-writes with Jessica Fletcher under the "Murder, She Wrote" brand. He did it as a surprise gift to my husband Dave and me. And when the review copy came in the mail, we had just sold the books that made up the retail part of our "collector's resource" business here. Yes, all of them. Our hearts were broken. And I couldn't figure out how to tell Jon what had happened.

Dave and I were very fortunate to "find each other" when we were fifty, and to enjoy savoring books together. One reason we let go of the Kingdom Books retail end was, Dave had a cancer diagnosis and we knew the rest of our time was limited, as his could not be treated. A year after that, I had one also (mine was treatable, though). And in April 2019, when Strong as Steel was released, Dave died.

Some of you already know the fierce loss and storms of change that follow the long illness and then death of a spouse. (If you haven't experienced it, I'm glad for you -- but you also may not be able to guess how it takes your world off balance.) I'm back in the saddle, reviewing crime fiction/mystery books, usually at or before their release dates. I'm sorry that I wasn't "there for Jon" during that interlude. But ... as someone who positions love and loyalty so centrally in his books, I bet he understands.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Finale of the Poke Rafferty (Bangkok) Series from Timothy Hallinan, STREET MUSIC

[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Despite the classic investigations that Poke leaps into, with violence and threat and red herrings and regret, Poke Rafferty is a person who cares enough to listen, to experience, and to change, even in this final volume of the series.”

One of the best loved international crime fiction series ends this season, as Tim Hallinan’s Street Music is the ninth and final book on his Poke Rafferty Thrillers (Soho Press). Catching attention in the fourth book with an Edgar nomination for The Queen of Patpong, Hallinan's Poke Rafferty Thailand novels have won wide acclaim. 

For readers already following the series, Street Music represents a bittersweet farewell to the “little family” than Hallinan has nurtured. First there’s been Poke Rafferty himself, an American writer who settled in Bangkok, won over by its people and sense of community. Poke’s marriage to Rose, a “bar girl” and former “Queen” of the Patpong bars, created the frame for their eventual adoption of a much-battered but creative, caring, and eventually loving daughter, Miaow, a child of the streets.
Street Music opens with the presence of a new member of the family, a baby that’s already been highly controversial earlier in the series. It’s a boy! But Poke’s not finding “natural” fathering impulses; Rose’s ever-present set of women friends crowding him out of the bedroom and onto a lumpy couch has a lot to do with this. But so does the kind of parenting he’s already been doing, growing into protecting and nurturing Miaow. Her street roots have engaged her in peril multiple times, and Poke routinely mobilizes friends, especially one in the Bangkok police force, to help.

What peril approaches Poke and especially Miaow when a mysterious street women begins to follow him and asks him for a huge amount of cash as “protection money” to keep her from destroying the little family? How can Poke handle the resulting chaos without upsetting Rose and bringing risk to the baby as well? It’s rough when you find yourself lying to the people you love best, in order to take care of them.

An Afterword by Hallinan recaps his approach to the series, and the startling effect that setting up a first scene that involved Poke + wife + daughter + groceries = family. “The word family did the trick,” he explains. “I barely knew who these people were but the moment I realized they were a family, I thought that it might be interesting to drop a normal—if intercultural and self-assembled—family, who are trying to preserve relationships along traditional lines, into the world capital of instant gratification”—that is, into Bangkok.

Not only is Poke Rafferty being followed and blackmailed in Street Music—he’s also coming to terms with his understanding of poverty, which doesn’t always lead to crime (although he’d about to find evidence of possible murder). Another former bar girl, Toots, lays it out for him: “Some lady no good. I poor girl too, Poke. Then I lucky too much, marry Leon, but before, when I have no money, I not take. Not good for karma. You know, you are poor and you good, you win. You poor and you bad, poor win.”

This is exactly the kind of moment that makes Hallinan’s crime fiction, especially the Poke Rafferty series, so interesting and unusual: Despite the classic investigations that Poke leaps into, with violence and threat and red herrings and regret, Poke Rafferty is a person who cares enough to listen, to experience, and to change, even in this final volume of the series.

What does Poke learn about Miaow’s original parent(s), after all this time raising her? How will he come to grips with being the father of a baby boy, and the husband of a woman who’s just experienced her own major transition? Which friends will lead him into more danger to his family, and which will help him walk through it and survive?

Street Music is very readable without the earlier books in the series. But it’s a richer read when placed in their context. Read the others before it or after; chances are, once you’ve entered Poke Rafferty’s community, you too will experience some of his reasons to change.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.  

Take Back Your Life: Women Get Stronger in THE LAST FLIGHT, Suspense from Julie Clark

All the publication dates lately are sliding around, as book publishers and bookstores adapt to a virus-threatened world. Ever get the feeling we are already living in a suspense novel of our own?

Still, THE LAST FLIGHT from Julie Clark has a pretty firm new release date of June 23 from Sourcebooks. And if you love a powerful and creepy work of suspense, so smoothly written that all you need to do is check that the doors are locked and keep turning the pages, this would be a great time to pre-order this crime novel. It's Julie Clark's second (the first was The Ones We Choose, in 2018). Chilling, twisty, and highly memorable, it's a good escape for the summer reading stack. Reader Beware: If you've been in the midst of an abusive situation, whether as the person working for a way out, or as the friend of someone facing those scary choices, THE LAST FLIGHT will nudge all your trauma buttons. And then, if you can keep going all the way through the book, it may convince you that if we "see" each other and lend a hand, there will be more fresh starts.

Claire Taylor Cook's trapped in a marriage so cruel, with a political husband so powerful, that her own death might be the only way out of it. With the help of a friend from her own past who has connections with organized crime, Claire begins plotting her own escape. It's not going to be easy—her abusive husband has her monitored all the time—but just the hope is enough to help her keep going: "Over the next year, Petra and I assembled a plan, choreographing my disappearance ore carefully than a ballet. A sequence of events so perfectly timed, there could be no room for error."

But of course, life's unpredictable. When an air crash threatens Claire's plan yet offers her a chance to hide in a new way, she takes action:
My eyes land on Eva's purse, and I reach into it and pull out a ring of keys and her wallet. I pocket the keys and open the wallet, memorizing the address on her license. 543 Le Roy. I don't hesitate. I walk out of the airport, into the bright California sunshine, and hail a cab.
It seems almost too easy—and it turns out to be dangerous. Soon Claire's risks have doubled, with the husband she's tried to escape hunting for her, and her "new life" being far from safe as well.

Clark's intense pacing turns even more compelling as she adds further twists. And when the book's done, even quarantine won't look so stressful anymore. Highly recommended for those who appreciate a thriller that's taut, edgy, and terrifying.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Fine Traditional Crime Fiction with Spice, from Caroline B. Cooney: BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN

What a delight to plunge into a well-spun story in the hands of a skilled and powerful storyteller: BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN is (at a rough count) book 64 from Caroline B. Cooney, and it has a polished flow that makes its creeping uneasiness all the more striking. And yet it's also an entertaining book, in the sense that any awareness of how our lives muddle along in our "golden years" had to make us either laugh or weep.

For Clemmie—that is, Clementine Lakefield, a resident in a senior development populated by nosy neighbors, golf carts, and planned activities—accidentally exploring a neighbor's home plunges her into the risks and dangers of both her own past and her neighbors'. She's been living a carefully fabricated and protected existence, where even her closest relatives don't know her exact address and haven't been to visit her. But her neatly constructed barriers are not enough to block a swift search for her by a drug-crime kingpin, once she casually shared a photo of an object she's spotted at her neighbor's residence.

The tastiest part of BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN is Cooney's clever entry into Clemmie's life as an elderly lady, hiding out:
Clemmie stared at herself in the bathroom mirror. When her beautiful black hair first began to go gray, she'd dyed it, but when it got so sparse that her scalp showed, she'd started wearing a wig. Latin students were always the best kids, and classes were always small, so behavior was rarely a problem, but the fact was, you needed every weapon at your disposal when you were in charge of teenagers. Clemmie tried not to show weakness, even if the weakness was just thinning hair. ...

It was crucial to be calm. She knew from way too many encounters that panic was the deciding factor in failure. Looking her best would help her keep her poise. ... She crept out of Blue Lilac, the shivers starting in her gut but not yet visible on her body.
There's a familiar classic flavor to Cooney's writing, even as the suspense continues to ramp up. How powerful are the forces arrayed against Clemmie? Even if she survives this conflict with a crime network, will she still have any familiar, safe life to return to? Or will all the shame and horror she's carefully hidden be exposed?

A good fat traditional mystery of about 300 pages, with spicy insight, and a perfect distraction from the stresses beyond the doors. Take the passenger seat with this remarkable lady under fire. Published under the Poisoned Pen Press, by Sourcebooks.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Brief Mention: CAGE by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Intense Icelandic Crime Fiction

Even before opening CAGE, the new crime novel from Iceland's Lilja Sigurðardóttir, there are three big "yes I want to read this" aspects to appreciate: (1) This is book three in Sigurðardóttir's outstanding Reykjavik noir series, which began with Snare, followed by Trap. (2) The translator is Quentin Bates, an award-winning crime novelist himself. (3) The publisher is Orenda Books, which is steadily and rapidly bringing outrageous and outstanding European fiction across the ocean. And here's a bonus point: The cover blurb is from the amazing Val McDermid.

Here is the only reason not to crack it open: The sex scenes in it are often quirky and sometimes sadistic. Although also sometimes heartbreakingly tender. Make your own choice on that basis.

The book opens with Agla, a gifted financial criminal, approaching the end of her prison sentence. Heartbroken at a lover's refusal before her time in jail, she's stayed depressed, isolated, and angry during her sentence—where she's also one of the few lesbians. When a cute and quirky woman seduces her in prison, she loses her heart all over again, and hopes for a life of love after release.

It's not that simple, though, because both of them and the people they connect with have dangerous ties to complex international criminal networks. And where there's high finance in such crime, there's also sexual trafficking of various sorts. It heats up quickly, starting with this prison visit:
'Yes, I know him,' Agla had said two weeks ago, and she had signed the visit request, even though she had never heard of this man before. Her curiosity had been sparked by the email in which he requested a visit. He had stated that there was an important business matter they should meet to discuss. She had forgotten about it until now. ...

He stood up and held his business card up to the glass. She could see a little picture of him in one corner, under the company's logo. Agla raised an eyebrow. International companies didn't make a habit of searching out convicts in Icelandic prisons to offer them work.
Pair these strands with a journalist who gets in over her head, and a pair of teens setting up an explosive hate crime, and CAGE is nonstop action all the way. Don't pick it up, of course, if the kinky sex will bother you -- but you can rely on a sort of justice eventually being established. It's a good ride.

Books by this author are arriving in the US a couple of years behind their European publication -- understandable with the time for translation. And worth waiting for.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Brief Mention: Fine Caper Crime Novel, LITTLE SIBERIA by Antti Tuomainen

A would-be race-car driver attempts suicide by fast car on a winter road in Finland, when instead of crashing the way he'd planned, his car is ripped apart by a random meteorite.

Now that's an opening that no crime novel has ever come close to! And from here, award-winning Finnish suspense author Antti Tuomainen rolls his snowball through one caper twist after another. For instance, there the value of the meteor—and the people who want it. Not to mention the small town where it gets placed temporarily and notoriously.

Here's a sample of Tuomainen's mid-novel explication, from the local pastor's point of view—a man with serious doubts about his own life:
The meteorite will be in the War Museum for a further two nights.

The list of people keen to get their hands on it seems to grow as time runs out. As for Leonid, I am in no doubt. He wants the meteorite. Karolina wants the meteorite and is apparently willing to collaborate with me — the guard on the night shift — to get it. Leonid is in love with Karolina, a matter that raises a number of questions.

Is Karolina employing Leonid's help in order to achieve her goal? If she is, why does she want to involve me in her plans? And if she isn't, why has she stared a relationship with a man for whom she feels no attraction? ... I feel as though I know them too well to think of them as my pursuers, and too little to know what really moves and motivates them. Of course, that applies to everyone I know, including my own wife. I don't even know the people I know.

Two more nights.
If you've had enough of the depressive side of "Scandinavian noir," here's your opportunity to snicker, guffaw, smirk, and otherwise enjoy a lively, fast-moving crime novel of marvelously black humor. Hurrah for Orenda Books bringing Tuomainen across the ocean, and for the deft translation by David Hackston.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.